January 31, 1994 12:00 PM

David Thewlis

That wonderful British writer-director Mike Leigh (High Hopes, Life Is Sweet) continues down his brave, lonely road, making movies about believable people living and suffering under painfully believable circumstances. (Was that an enthusiastic “Yippee” from the viewing public?) The destitute, the rich, the middle-class, the decent-hearted, the mean, the twitty, the pretty, the pimply, all join him and stumble along—to borrow a phrase from Thewlis, the near-homeless man at the center of this bleak new movie—”the old Via Dolorosa.”

Thewlis is a brilliant, borderline-disturbed 27-year-old misanthrope, newly arrived in London from Manchester, England, who bums around working-class and slum areas. He batters and baffles everyone with his sarcasm, his preposterously overdeveloped vocabulary (a bird tattoo becomes an “ornithological mutation”) and his numbing meditations on the Meaninglessness of It All. He stays, briefly, with an ex-girlfriend and her catatonically stupid housemate (Katrin Cartlidge). He has a fling with Cartlidge, then flees for some reason. He encounters, to no particular purpose, a bewildered homeless couple from Scotland, a night watchman obsessed with the future, a boozy middle-aged woman who loves Jane Austen, a sad-eyed diner waitress and muggers.

The movie is a kind of scummy picaresque, much of it nightmarishly memorable. (The boozy woman, desperately primping to make herself attractive to Thewlis, is unforgettable.) After about an hour and a half, though, as one weird desperate moment leads to another, you find yourself wearing down. You may even wonder whether Leigh didn’t just get up on the wrong side of the bed. Is the movie, in the end, going to be just dominoes falling in the dark? No: Naked concludes with…well, let’s just say that Leigh’s movies, however painful, ultimately resolve on a genuine (if qualified) note of hope. That merits at least a “Yahoo,” doesn’t it? (NR)

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